Construction on the ReMax Results building in Andover won’t begin until spring, but already Douglas J. Boser has walked through rooms and turned on light switches.
Sitting in a comfortable chair in the Minneapolis office of design firm LHB Corp., Boser strapped on an Oculus Rift headset, and toured the two-story office building in living, virtual-reality color.
“This brings a whole other level of depth and detail to anything we’ve been using,” said Boser, a St. Cloud-based real estate developer. “You can stand in the middle of the lobby and say, we’ve got to bring that sun shading out 6 inches. And you can literally see the shading change inside the model.”
Virtual reality used to be the domain of fantastical video games or frontier-pushing researchers in multimillion dollar labs. But relatively inexpensive new tools like the Rift and Google Cardboard viewers have made the 3-D experiences more accessible.
LHB has become one of the nation’s first design firms to incorporate virtual reality, or VR, across the sweep of its in-house teams of architects, planners, engineers and landscapers. In the inherently complex world of construction, the firm’s leaders say virtual reality can streamline the cumbersome process of creating plans, reduce costly on-site mistakes and changes, and save money in the process.
“The future is where software and tools are merging,” said LHB senior vice president and architect Mike Fischer, who predicts an explosion in virtual reality in the field of architecture in the coming years. “The owner can see what they’re getting and the contractor can see what they’re building.”
Virtual reality simulations are a step above animations and fly-throughs now used by some architects. With VR, drawings come to life before workers raise the first hammer.
Users experience the space at eye level — with the flexibility to change the view from that of a 6-foot man to an 8-year old child. Look up, and you might notice that the ceiling lights are hung too low. Look down, and you might rethink that shag carpet. You can test whether the morning sun will cast a glare on your computer screen or whether putting a window in front of that giant evergreen will wreck a million-dollar view of the lake.
Beyond aesthetics, contractors can walk down a flight of stairs, and make sure the headroom is within code. A virtual tour of a manufacturing plant can verify that eye-washing stations conform to OSHA standards.
“With VR, you can inhabit the space in full scale,” said Aaron Westre, a researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Virtual Reality Design Lab, which uses a large-scale motion-capture system in a 5,000-square-foot courtyard. “You get a far more physical sense of what that space is going to be.”
Jim Heilig got a taste of the power of virtual reality as project manager for the Duluth Transit Authority’s $30-million multimodal hub, which is set to open in early February.
“We looked at the flat blueprint and saw our grand stairway, and tried to visualize the ceiling and the lighting and the walls in this area,” he said. “With this tool, you get an idea of the spaciousness much more than you would ever get on the line drawing and even off a model.”
Getting a look at the virtual world helped “work out the kinks” in the real world, Heilig said. After seeing how the natural light changed during the day, his team decided to add lighter wood in some areas. Virtual reality simulations also gave him confidence that people sitting at the information desk would have a clear view of the waiting area and hallways, for security reasons.
“It puts you right in those locations,” Heilig said. “You can see where a person’s going to sit and what they’re going to see when they’re sitting there. A blueprint can give you an idea, but this cements it for you.”
For now, virtual reality technology is being used mostly by large firms and projects with budgets big enough to absorb the costs.
The U’s tracking system, for instance, cost about $250,000, Westre said. And the earliest head-mounted displays when the lab opened four years ago cost about $25,000.
But as the technology becomes available to consumers, the cost is coming down. Google Cardboard viewers, which work with a smartphone, cost less than $20 and turn computer graphics into a 3-D virtual experience. The Oculus Rift, available in retail stores by late March, is a head-mounted system that costs about $600.
It will be years before virtual reality tools will supplant the humble floor plan. But VR can allow designers and clients to design on the fly, easily making changes with the click of a mouse rather than the inefficient back-and-forth volleys and multiple redrafting of plans that happens now.
Virtual reality also has potential to be “the great equalizer,” LHB’s Fischer noted. A middle-school maintenance worker can put on a VR headset and notice design flaws that might go unnoticed by project managers. When debates arise over expensive public projects, elected officials and citizens alike can use a Google Cardboard viewer to step inside of the proposed building ahead of public meetings or voter referendums.
“For many projects, you’ve got clients located all over the place,” said Dan Stine, an LHB architect, who trains building designers around the world on computer-based modeling and virtual reality software. “You have periodic meetings, but when we update the design, they can go to their website and get the latest version. It becomes a single source of truth. That’s the beauty of this.”
The software and technology remain expensive. But builders and developers such as Boser believe investing in VR at the front end, will pay off with greater certainty and cost savings as a project progresses.
“All projects have what we call, ‘conflicts’ — things that don’t conform or need changing,” he said. “We can blow through $100,000 in a major problem in about 5 minutes.
“If all of a sudden you have a change order to add a light fixture, and you only find out after the drywall is up and everything is finished, that’s a costly add. With this? You want a light fixture? It probably won’t cost you as much because it’ll be incorporated into the bid.”